Victoria's Ombudsman has rejected complaints against RMIT University and its Deputy Vice Chancellor Research, Professor Daine Alcorn, by Douglas Snelling's biographer, Davina Jackson.
An investigation officer with the state Ombudsman's office, Jessica Downey, has found that Jackson's RMIT scholarship-funded PhD on Snelling was failed via 'academic judgment' and that there was no 'procedural irregularity' by RMIT's administrators.
In mid-2013, the Ombudsman was advised by Victoria's Independent Broad-based Anti Corruption (IBAC) agency that there was 'a case to answer' in Jackson's complaints to both agencies (and the Commonwealth Government's Australian Research Integrity Committee) about RMIT Chancellery's cancellation and overruling of its university appeals committee, after it had upheld Jackson's appeal against the failure of her thesis.
The appeals committee had received evidence from the head of RMIT's school of architecture and design, Professor Richard Blythe, that Jackson's Snelling research was wrongly judged as a theory rather than history thesis by two of its three external examiners, and that his school had wrongly accepted the examiners' reports. Blythe had recommended that two new examiners be appointed to re-review the thesis as a history document; the genre within which it had been accepted by the school.
After the appeals committee unanimously upheld Jackson's appeal and directed that the university's Graduate Research School 'examine the thesis in light of the examiners' reports', Professor Alcorn supervised a process in which the university's three Portfolio Deans accepted the two examiners' reports recommending failure, without examining the thesis or being informed that another examiner's report recommended a pass.
The Victorian Ombudsman's findings (as communicated to Jackson) are:
The Victorian Ombudsman has received correspondence from the Independent Broad-based Anti-Corruption Commission (IBAC) dated 14 August 2013 to refer your complaint about RMIT University (RMIT) to the Ombudsman for consideration under the Ombudsman Act 1973 (the Act).
Your complaint relates to the decision of RMIT to fail your PHD thesis. Specifically you complain that:
> RMIT’s appeal committee (the committee) ignored a ‘clearly written’ letter from Professor Richard Blythe Head of School, Architecture and Design
> RMIT’s Chancellery ‘flout[ed]’ the appeal committee’s unanimous judgment that the thesis had been wrongly examined
> the appeals process was manipulated by RMIT’S Deputy Vice Chancellor, Ms Daine Alcorn.
I made enquiries with RMIT pursuant to section 13A of the Act. On the basis of the information provided by the university and your correspondence, I provide my comment below.
Professor Blythe’s statement
You state that the committee ignored a ‘clearly written’ letter from Professor Blythe. I have obtained a copy of a memorandum dated 6 October 2010 addressed to Associate Professor John Reece, Acting Dean, School of Graduate Studies in which Professor Blythe presents his view on the supervision and assessment of your thesis.
RMIT has advised that this memorandum was included in your appeal submission and distributed to all attendees prior to the appeal hearing. RMIT has also informed this office that during the hearing presentations Professor Blythe referred to this memorandum and expressed his opinion on the supervision and assessment of your thesis.
RMIT has informed this office that it ‘carefully considered’ Mr Blythe’s submission and formed the view that ‘this was a matter of academic judgment rather than process error’.
When assessing complaints regarding the failure of a course or subject, the Ombudsman considers whether the university has acted fairly and complied with its own policies and procedures. The Ombudsman does not review the academic merit of an assessment piece.
On this basis I consider that RMIT did not ‘ignore’ Mr Blythe’s opinion and consider it reasonable that they determined it to be a ‘matter of academic judgment’.
RMIT’s Chancellery ‘flout[ed]’ the committee’s unanimous judgment
You state that the RMIT Chancellery’s post-appeal decision ‘to flout the appeal committee’s unanimous judgement’ was wrong.
I refer to an email of 16 November 2010 sent to you by Mr Craig Paterson on behalf of the committee. Mr Paterson advises you the committee upheld your appeal and provided you with an outcome. This outcome provides that further action be taken by the School of Graduate Research Advisory Board (SGRAB).
On 14 December 2010, Mr Paterson wrote to you again to provide you with the findings of the SGRAB. In this letter Mr Paterson states ‘[t]his represents the final outcome of your appeal’. The final outcome of your appeal was ‘the original classification is confirmed. Your academic record will now be amended to reflect a NN (Fail)’.
RMIT has provided me with a copy of an email sent by Professor Blythe to the Dean, School of Graduate Research which states that although he disagrees with the view of the SGRAB he is ‘reassured that the process followed has been robust … is reasonable at least in a process sense … am confident about the ability of RMIT to answer any questions around the integrity of this matter’.
Upon review of the above mentioned emails to you, I am confident that the SGRAB undertook the actions as directed by the committee. These actions finalised your appeal process. I have not identified any procedural irregularities in this process.
The appeals process was manipulated by RMIT’s Deputy Vice Chancellor, Ms Daine Alcorn
I have not identified any evidence that suggests that Ms Alcorn ‘manipulated’ the appeals process. As previously advised I have not identified any procedural irregularity in the appeals process.
This completes my consideration of your complaint.
Postscript 8 March 2015 Following receipt of new FOI evidence obtained by Jackson from several universities, the Victorian Ombudsman's office has reopened her complaint and will discuss the case again with RMIT's Chancellery (now under new administrators). The Ombudsman's office has stressed that it can negotiate but cannot control university policies or decisions.
Postscript 15 April 2015 The Ombudsman's office (investigation officer Michael Cavendish) advised that after reviewing Jackson's 'considerable amount' of new FOI material, it could 'not locate any instances of bias', did not change its view that 'RMIT has not made an administrative error' in handling the PhD appeal, and did not have the power to overturn the decision.